Protests escalated in India on Wednesday against the planned execution of a Sikh radical for his role in the assassination of a state chief minister by a suicide bomber in 1995.
Balwant Singh Rajoana was scheduled to be hanged Saturday morning at Patiala Jail in the northern Sikh-majority state of Punjab, in what would be the first execution carried out in India since 2004.
Sikh organisations, politicians and rights groups have joined in calling for the sentence to be commuted, although Rajoana himself has made it clear he would not appeal for clemency.
A strike call by Sikh groups and opposition parties saw many businesses shut down Wednesday across Punjab, while hundreds of protestors wearing saffron turbans gathered at Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal was in New Delhi where he was expected to meet with President Pratibha Patil and seek her personal intervention.
Security has been tightened across Punjab, with 60,000 police personnel and 15 companies of paramilitary forces put on alert, and special orders prohibiting large gatherings.
Rajoana was sentenced to death in 2007 for his role in the 1995 assassination of the then Punjab chief minister, Beant Singh, who was killed by a suicide bomber along with 15 other people.
Rajoana had acted as a standby assassin in case the initial attempt failed.
Radical Sikh groups had held Beant Singh responsible for abuses allegedly carried out by security forces in the suppression of a violent Sikh nationalist insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s.
Rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called for Rajoana’s execution to be suspended, saying it would mark a major step backwards for India.
“The death penalty is always wrong and the Indian government should immediately stop this execution,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“Beyond that, executing Rajoana would merely continue the cycle of killing and retribution between the Sikh community and the Indian state that has long divided communities.”
India’s last execution took place in 2004, when a former security guard was hanged for the rape and murder of a 14-year-old schoolgirl.
India has hundreds of condemned convicts awaiting execution, including the killers of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and Pakistani national Mohammed Ajmal Kasab — the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
A complex and lengthy appeal process means those given capital punishment often sit on death row for many years.
In most cases the death sentence is commuted to life imprisonment.